Published March 06 2013
In North Dakota, questionable plates that slip through cracks sometimes get recalledFargo - Sorry, MUFFMAN, you’ve been exposed.
Tough luck, BTCH4LF, your life was cut short.
DOOBARU, you’ll have to find another name for your Subaru.
PLAYBOY, it seems you were too playful for North Dakota sensibilities.
And, to the gatekeepers tasked with weeding out potentially offensive personalized license plates, RENOB probably seemed innocuous enough – but apparently they never read it in reverse.
Someone later got the joke and complained about it to the state Department of Transportation, which recalled the license plate.
Each year, the department reclaims a handful of so-called “vanity” plates that slip through the cracks of its three-tiered screening process, which has resorted to using high school students to decipher slang and acronyms.
“It’s definitely an eye-opener,” said Linda Sitz, director of the department’s Motor Vehicle Division.
Earlier this week, the department’s recall letters from 2010-12 were posted on the website governmentattic.org, which obtained them through an open records request.
‘Kids’ help out
In some cases, the reason behind the recall was obvious. For example, the plate DBAG presumably didn’t refer to a duffle bag.
Less apparent was URAFI, an acronym used to tell someone they are a certain degree of idiot.
“But, you know, if I sent it to the kids, they knew exactly what it was right away,” Sitz said.
The “kids” are Bismarck high school students who sit on a nine-member review team that also includes department workers and community members of various ages.
Prior to 2007, vanity plate applications were reviewed in-house. But the abbreviated, evolving language of the Internet, email and text messaging prompted the department to look outside for help, Sitz said.
“Because with the way texting is nowadays and the acronyms of things, I need different sets of eyes to look at it, to see what does this plate mean,” she said.
Recall reasons vary
In one instance, a trio of letters proposed for a vanity plate in 2011 turned out to be an acronym for a physical act so vile, Sitz couldn’t bring herself to say it over the phone.
Two of the plates recalled in the past three years were pulled because of their similarity to police license plates.
The owner of the plate PAULICE had put it on an old police car, while the Fargo-area owner of POL1CE – note the “1” instead of an “I” – took the bit even further, Sitz said.
“He actually put the lights on it, and he was causing some problems in the city,” she said.
As anyone who’s been stuck in traffic knows, repeatedly sounding out a plate with missing vowels may reveal its meaning, as with LKMYJNK, recalled last June.
In the case of the denied MUFFMAN plate, the applicant explained that he used the vehicle for his company and advertising.
“He claimed to have a muffler business, but the kids especially said it was very inappropriate,” Sitz said.
The PLAYBOY applicant also asked the state to reconsider, saying it was in no way meant to be offensive or sexual in nature, but screeners didn’t buy it.
A Fargo man’s application for the atheist plate “ISNOGOD” attracted widespread media attention in 2010 after the state rejected it and he appealed. The state ultimately approved the plate.
Not all recalled plates are pulled for content.
In April 2011, the state asked a woman to return plates that had been ordered by her ex-husband but sent to her residence because he hadn’t changed his mailing address. She refused to return the plates, and it became a civil issue, Sitz said.
The plates: ROLNFAT.
“I think she felt it was a slang against her,” she said.
About 5 percent of North Dakota’s active license plates are vanity plates, which cost owners an extra $25.
As of Jan. 25, the state had 56,204 personalized plates out of a total of 1,048,765, according to department spokeswoman Jamie Olson.
Sitz estimated the department recalls about 15 plates per year, though that number was lower in the past three years, when there were 11 recalls.
Once a week, a committee of three department staffers reviews applications for vanity plates. Those flagged as questionable are sent to Sitz, who forwards them to a nine-member review team.
Team members are anonymous to each other, and they’re not allowed to see each other’s votes because the department doesn’t want to sway their opinions, Sitz said.
If the team recommends denial, Sitz sends the vote results to the executive review team – currently made up of the deputy director for driver and vehicle services, Linda Butts, and Grant Levi, the department’s interim director – for a final call.
After a plate is approved and out on the streets, if a citizen complains about it being offensive, the nine-member review team re-evaluates it based on the new information and it again goes to the executive team for a final decision.
Owners may appeal a recall and provide additional information about the plate’s meaning and why it should be allowed. It then goes through the team review process again, for a third and final review.
If the recall is upheld, the owner may submit a different vanity plate or choose a standard plate and be reimbursed the $25 fee.
Sitz said she believes the system “works very well,” but keeping up with the slang is a challenge.
“I’m always looking for additional students to be on the committee,” she said.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528